A US military commander (2nd R) walks with Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the YPG headquarters that was hit by Turkish airstrikes at Mount Karachok near Malikiya, Syria, April 25, 2017. (photo by REUTERS/Rodi Said)
On April 28, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters that US forces were deployed to monitor the Syrian-Turkish border. He urged both sides to remain focused on the common enemy: the Islamic State. Turkish airstrikes early on the morning of April 25 had escalated the border clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Professor Emeritus Andrew Terrill of the US Army War College told Al-Monitor, “The Turkish airstrikes into Syria and Iraq are yet another problem for increasingly difficult US-Turkish relations. Many traditional American supporters of Turkey have been put off by the sweeping purge of all major government institutions by President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and by the problems surrounding the referendum on a new constitution. Previous Turkish charges of US support for the coup attempt have also hurt these relations since any reasonable logic would dictate that the United States would have nothing to gain through an extra-constitutional effort to exchange the Erdogan flavor of Islamism for the [Fethullah] Gulen variety. The current bombing raids into Syria and Iraq are at odds with US policy and risk the possibility that the Turkish actions will be viewed as striking at US allies in the war against [IS]. The decision is all the more puzzling since President [Donald] Trump has shown warmth towards Erdogan while making war against [IS], a centerpiece of his foreign policy. If the Turks wanted to discomfort their most important potential friend in Washington, this is an awfully good way to do that.”
Turkish attacks on Sinjar and Rojava were not coordinated by the US-led coalition or Russia and have been criticized by everyone but the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, who blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Knowing well that these sorts of military engagements generate extreme risks with almost all players in both Syria and Iraq, why did the Turkish government initiate them, particularly right before a much anticipated presidential visit to Washington?
Al-Monitor spoke with three senior Turkish bureaucrats in military intelligence about Turkey’s goals for the short and medium terms and how they perceived the attacks and their aftermath. Looking at the issue from both the Turkish and the American angles, Turks and Americans are asking the same questions from different sides of the argument.
There are three main justifications given for the bombings: the terror attacks in Turkey, the spread of Iranian influence in both Syria and Iraq, and the need to protect the territorial integrity of these countries.
The first reason is the most urgent and important to the Turkish officials. Although several Kurdish sources, including President of the Syrian Democratic Council Ilham Ahmed, have stated, “We have never used northern Syria to launch any attack against Turkey,” the Turkish officials claimed that for months there has been mounting evidence that terrorists, bomb-making materials and other sorts of arms are entering the country from YPG-controlled camps in Syria.
For Turkey, PKK-YPG cooperation and US support for the YPG has been a sore issue. Even TRT World, a Turkish radio and television network reporting in English, regularly refers to the YPG as US supported, a notable evolution in the Turkish media. Since the photos of US soldiers wearing YPG patches appeared in the press in June 2016, the Turkish public has been questioning why their ally supports a terror organization that keeps killing people on Turkish soil. On April 29, photos of US soldiers attending the funeral of Kurdish militants killed in Turkish attacks also caused a public uproar. Erdogan told the press he would bring the issue of US and YPG flags displayed together to Trump’s attention in their much anticipated May 16 meeting.
All parties were informed of the upcoming attacks two hours in advance and no other coordination efforts were made. The move was a first in two aspects: the first Turkish bombing of the headquarters of the Sinjar Resistance Units and Turkey’s first time simultaneously bombing both Syrian and Iraqi territories. Turkey has been deeply concerned about the mountainous Sinjar area.
A Turkish academic who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “Turkey has been watching the Sinjar area for over a year now. The valleys and peaks of the area resemble Qandil. In this sort of terrain, aerial bombing has limited success. Once the units are dispersed and hidden, they are impossible to contain and manage. So Turkey calls it the ‘second Qandil,’ the new PKK headquarters, and this brings deep fears not just to the top echelons of the government but to the public as well. Since July 2015, Turkey has lost more than 1,000 [people] to PKK terror.”
Media outlets supportive of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party claimed that the United States had shared intelligence about the Turkish attack with the PKK, therefore saving hundreds of its senior officials.
Turkish officials also believe the United States should be concerned over the unchecked Iranian expansion in both Syria and Iraq. Turkish officials echoed their president in explaining why they are concerned about the situation in both countries. They said proxy Iranian agencies are indeed financially and logistically supporting the PKK and other militias. Erdogan has been referring to the Popular Mobilization Units, an Iraqi government-supported umbrella organization of dozens of different predominantly Shiite militias, as a terror organization. Turkish officials told Al-Monitor April 29, “One day, sooner or later, the US and Russians will leave along with the foreign fighters, but we will remain, and so will Iran. Hence, the PKK will become a bargaining chip against Turkey, as we experienced in the 1990s with Syria. We do not want another neighboring country providing logistical help to a terror organization against us.”
Then there is the Turkish goal of preserving the territorial unity of Syria and Iraq. Talking with the Turkish bureaucrats, one gets a deep sense of disappointment and confusion with regard to why the Americans preferred to work with an armed nonstate entity (the YPG) rather than with Turkey in their operations. Israel and the United States have both recently conducted aerial bombings of Bashar al-Assad regime targets that they considered threats to their national security and now Turkey perceives worries about the transition pains in Washington. One Turkish bureaucrat, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, argued, “Obama’s Syria policy was confusing. We tried to cooperate. With Trump, we hope that he will understand we are on the same side. As long as the YPG, PKK and other militant groups do not embark upon attacks on our soil, we will not fight them. We have always supported the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. Our actions are to support this cause as well.”
Serhat Guvenc, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, explained to Al-Monitor that however odd it may be, with these bombings, Turkey confirms its determination to be part of the game in the area. If US policy toward Iran changes, he added, “Turkey is ready to cash in on the appreciation of its own value.” Guvenc posed a crucial question: “Ultimately, whoever makes the final decision in the United States is what will determine the US-Turkish relations in the next few years.”
With all this in mind, why Turks are taking such high risks and alienating almost all parties on the ground is rather simple: They are convinced it is worth it. Yet even though Turkey may have justification for such actions, Erdogan has used foreign policy issues to influence domestic politics so much that now it seems his loud, persistent antagonism toward the international arena is making it difficult to present his case to it.